Tamil Muslims – The Chulias in the Malay World

The Tamil Muslims, the Chulias are the indigenous Tamil Muslim community on the Coromndel Coast, the eastern littoral of Southern India. They are ethnically Dravidian and Tamil is their mother tongue. Islam had stepped in the coast of Southern India from the middle of 7th century C.E. through the Arab Muslim traders. The ancestry of the Tamil Muslim community was inaugurated here by the early Arab Muslim traders’ intermarriage with the Coromndel native women. Religious conversion took place side by side with the peaceful efforts of those Arab Muslim traders in the coastal towns of the west and east coasts of Southern India.  The offspring from the intermarriage referred supra, mingled with the converted lot and thus an ethnic group, the Tamil Muslims, emerged by early 8th century C.E., with separate identity within the composite Tamil culture. .  Islam penetrated in to the hinterland of the Coromndel in the subsequent centuries gradually.  In that commerce had been the main agency in creating such a new world order.1

            By about 12-13th centuries the chain of port towns on the Coromandel  Coast, Pulicat, PortoNovo, Kovalam, Nagapattinam, Thondi, Kilakkarai, Kayalapattinam, Colochel etc., became strong holds of the Tamil Muslims. The early Tamil Muslim population on the coastal belt, mostly converts,  were people associated with the maritime activities. They were sailors, boatmen, pearl and chank divers and fishermen. Many among them form this humble beginning, climbed up the social ladder and became maritime merchants and ship owners. They also controlled the region’s pearl and chank fisheries. They had developed a wide trade network across seas.2

            The Tamil Muslims expanded their internal and as well as external commerce to the Far East and Ceylon.  The religious ties and the association of similar people in that land facilitated their trading diaspora. The Tamil Muslim ship owners carried in their sails (Paimarakkappal)   commodities for sale and also took up a variety of subsidiary roles such as intermediaries among the people of different cultures.3 Maritime Muslim traders from Pulicat and Nagapattinam, in the 15th century carried Coromndel piece goods to the international exchange centers in Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula and cultivated relationship with the major Muslim localities.  It was through this Muslim lineage the medieval rulers of the Tamil country gained access to the world of dynamic international trade.4

          The Tamil Muslim society was socially organized in to sub – divisions such as Marakkayar, Labbai and Rawthar. By and large the Marakkayars were the people involved in the maritime trading activities. The Tamil Muslims were better known ‘Chulias’ in the Southeast Asian countries. The European trading company records are the primary source for the study of trade net work and diapora of the Tamil Muslims right from the 16th century.  The Malay historiography sources on Tamil Muslims are few.

            The origin and usage of the terminology ‘Chulia’ had been a matter of debate over the years. The writings of the European, travelers, traders and trading companies and the interpretation there on, had created much confusion forcing the readers to the margin of understanding, prompting Barbara Watson Andaya to say, ‘the term Chulia never had been satisfactorily defined’5.   Koo Salma Nasution, the researcher on Chulias of Penang observes that the Tamil Muslims surface in the  written records as, Chulias, Klings, Moors, Malabars, Jawi Pekans, Jawi Perananakans, Indian Muslims, South Indian Muslims, Mohammadans, Indian Mohammadans, Mohammadan Tamils, Mamak and even Malays.  Futher  adds that the term Tamil Muslim came to be  adopted from 1930s due to the influence of the Dravidian Self Respect Movement, and well pronounced in thepost-Independent era when the Indian  provincial boundaries were  bifurcated on linguistic lines.6 The maritime historians in general and  the maritime historians in particular  have added their own findings on the etymology and ownership of the term. A recent writer says:   

“Commonly in Singapore and Malaysia they are  grouped with   Indians   when defining their ethnicity,  with the Tamils when describing their linguistic affiliation, with Malays when religion is used”7.

It is interesting to note that the term ‘Chulia’ is not in popular usage in their homeland, Tamil Nadu. Hence a short note on the terminology becomes necessary for better understanding.

            The Portuguese and Malay texts of 16th century never used the term Chulia. The Muslims were known to the Portuguese as ‘Moors’ (Mouro).8 But their records of the period in Southeast Asian countries used the term ‘Keling’ for the Muslim and Hindu traders form South India.9   The Dutch and English texts from 18th century used the term Chulia, Chuliar, Choolia, Choliar to the Tamil Muslims.

            Again the Europeans recognized the Muslims in Malay States as Malabar or Malabaris. The important trading street in Penang where the South Indian Muslims congregated was known as ‘Malabar Street’. (Malabar will denote the west coast of South India and thereby taking Malabari as Malayalam language). But the two early books published by Christian Missionaries at Kottayam, Thambiran Vanakkam (1576) and Adiyar Vanakkam (1586), said to have been printed in Malabari, which was thought to be Malayalam language. But the books were  made available it  was  found that the books were printed   in Tamil. Hence, to the Europeans in South India at that time, Tamil language was also known as Malabari.10 Ananda Ranga Pillai, the Dubash of French Governor of Pondicherry, was known as ‘Les Chief Malabaris’, (The chief of Tamils) 11.

            When the Tamil Muslims formed the majority among the Indian immigrants in Penang, the ‘Malabar  Street”, was renamed as ‘Chulia Street’ in 1798 by the English East India Company12. Still, a century later, the Anglo Indian Dictionary equated the Chulia Muslims with Mabars.13

            The term, ‘Coromandel’, was derived from ‘Cholamandalam’ the east coast of Southern India, the territory of the medieval Chola rulers of Tamil country. The people lived there came to be called as Cholas.14 The sailors of the Tamil coast had been known to the contemporary Arabs as ‘Cholas’.15  From Cholas: Cholia, Choolia, Chulia. Here again making one to think all Chulias are not Muslims, but all Muslims are Chulias.

            Arasaratnam says, by the end of the 17th century all the Tamil Muslims were recognized as Chulias, as dynamic sea borne traders of Bay of Bengal.16

            The experienced English trader of 17th century in the Bay of Bengal Thomas Forrest, had remarked that, “Chulias and Malabars are synanyms”.17 The English country trader Thomas Bowray distinguished ‘Moor’ and ‘Chulia’ and affirm that Chulias were the Muslim form Coromndel ports like PortoNovo, Nagapattinam and Pondicherry18. The English choice of the terminology ‘ Chulia’ form 18th century in favour of the Tamil Muslims becomes clear form their usage ‘Chulia’ (Tamil Muslim) side by side with ‘Keling’ (Hindu Tamil).19

            With all these endless discussions and debates a recent researcher (2016) concludes that, ‘the term Chulia and its various derivatives Cholia, Choolia, Choulia have taken to be synonymous with the Tamil Muslims”.20 As such the ‘Chulias’ are the Tamil Muslims from Coromandel. In this paper both the terms will be used to suit the context.

            The spread of Chulias around the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia is part of phenomenon of merchant diaspora. They under took long distance commercial ventures to the needs of different cultures in their own ships and in hired ones. The Chulia diasporas in Southeast Asia had created a very strong and lasting effect in the social and cultural life of these regions to this day.21 The Chulias had played a vital role in the integration of the Southeast Asian countries in the world trading system from about 16th century. These diaspora groups of merchants were also important for the European economic expansion east ward across the Bay of Bengal.22

            Malacca became an international port and chief enterpot for the whole of Malay world from 15th century. Due to the combined efforts of the Hadhramis, Gujarathi and Coromndel – Tamil- Muslim, the political and commercial elites of the ports along the Straits of Malacca had embraced Islam in considerable numbers already from the mid 13th century. Conversion and intermarriage intensified together with trading network. The Tamil Muslim traders utilized the opportunities open in the port. In the heyday of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15the Century, the Tamil Muslim traders were powerful force in the royal court intrigues.  They were appointed to positions such as harbour masters (shahbandar) and ministers (bendaraha). The ‘Seraju Malayu’ the Malay chronicle, describes how they played as king makers. The Tamil Muslims contracted marriage with the Malaccan royal families. Sultan Muzafar Shah (1446-59) was said to the son of a Tamil Muslims princess. Portuguese Tom Pires had reported that the Tamil Muslims were recognized as the people who bring most honour to Malacca. Settling in the estuary ports on both sides of Malacca, these Tamil Muslim Chulia traders intermingled with local population helping the spread of Islam and the Sufi tradition.23

                From Malacca, the Tamil  Muslims were fed in to the trade stream, radiating to every corner of Southeast Asia and China. Much of the trade originated from Pulicat and Nagappattinam. The bulk of the commodity from Coromndel was textiles. In return the merchants took silk, gold, copper, tin, pepper, spices and Chinese porceline.24

            The Tamil Muslim early settlers in Malacca did not takes their women folk with them. They maintained a cordial relationship with the local people. They were affectionately called as ‘Mamak’, (uncle) by the natives, this facilitated intermarriage with local woman and the offspring were called Jawi Pekans, in Penang and Malacca thus producing new hybrid ethnicity. The subsequent generations assimilated in to the Malay population but with district identity. In Singapore they were called as Jawi Peranakans.

            The Tamil Muslims lived in their own houses in Malcca to suit their commercial activities. Their settlement was known as “Kampang Palli.25 Tamil was in wider use in Malacca due to the influence of the Tamil Muslims. In the nodes connecting the Malay world with Coromandel Coast, the ability to speak Tamil was equally valuable.  It became the language of trade in Malacca in the 16-17th centuries. Rich Muslim families made their children to learn Tamil. Most of the school teachers in Malacca in the 1780s were Tamils. The Dutch also recognized Tamil as the medium of trade communication in Malacca. In view of this the leading port officials or syahbandars were commonly Tamil Muslims-Chulias.26

            The fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 had scattering effect on the Tamil Muslim diaspora to all the corners of the Archipelago. The Portuguese were hostile towards the Tamil Muslims and  wanted to expel them from Malacca trade systems and imposed many restrictions and prevented the Muslims ships from entering Malacca waters. However when the Portuguese could not get sufficient supply of piece goods they were willing to issue passes to the Tamil Muslim traders for entering in to Malacca trade.  But the Tamil Muslims were able to circumvent the restrictions by utilizing the freighting space aboard the designated ships of the Portuguese to concession holders. Thus the official vessels carried merchants and goods including that of the Tamil Muslims, ignoring the Portuguese prohibitions, the Tamil Muslims freely traded in South East Asian ports.27 The Portuguese sent  large ship annually from Goa to Malacca that passed through Pulicat.  The freight space in the ship was rented to Indian traders. The Portuguese were willing to sell passes to the Tamil Muslims at lesser cost for voyage in the ship. Thus the Tamil Muslims were able to continue their trade in Malacca.

            The Tamil Muslim traders while avoiding the Portuguese in Malacca started regrouping in the safe ports for their operations, such as Brunei, Kedah, Johor, Perak and Aceh which became strong centers of Islam by that time which facilitated the trade network diaspora.  Thus ‘Mosque and Market had been natural pair over much of the Islamic world paving one another’s way in the spread of Islam.28

            Malacca was captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1641. The Dutch also followed the hate policy of the Portuguese and tried to ban the Tamil Muslims. But when they starved of the Coromndel commodities, realized the importance of the Tamil Muslim trade and liberally permitted Marakkayar ships to the Southeast Asian ports. Thus the Tamil Muslims also adjusted with the hostile Dutch.

            Kedah and Aceh were the two important favourable emporia to the Tamil Muslims when they were pushed down at Malacca. Royal patronage was readily available to them. The trade relationship of Kedah with the ancient Tamil country is attested by the Sangam period Tamil Literature of 2nd century C.E. The 18th century Malay texts like Hikayat Marong Mahavangsa speak much about these traditions. Kedah was known to the Tamils as Kadaram. The recent archeological findings at Kedah  in the  nearby Bujang Valley, shed much light on the subject. With expeditions and trade expansion, the relationship between the two territories continued for long, to be so to this day. Kedah attracted the Coromndel shipping since it was the first land fall on the coast.  It was strategically situated for the return voyage as well.29

             On the Coromandel the maritime traffic of South East Asia was centered on the ports like Nagappattinam, Nagore, Cuddalore, and PortoNovo. These were the home towns of the Chulia Muslim merchants who became the only group to answer the British challenge effectively. Through operated with low margin they considered commerce as a honorable position. Thomas Bowray would remark on the ability Chulia merchant group, ‘they speak several eastern languages and their skill in accounting system was also widely recognised’.30

            Individual Chulia traders were well placed to serve as cross cultural brokers facilitating exchange between supplies in Southeast Asian ports, local rulers, Europeans and their own countrymen. The value of their trade was small and medium range. Though we could come across titles like Marakkayar, Marican, Lebbai etc., during the 18th century most of the Chulia – The Tamil Muslims – who rose to the position of influence in the Malay trading network, courts and in  social life, were  from a humble beginning, i.e. small  trading class. The wealthy Tamil Muslim merchants on the Coromndel were reluctant to relinquish positions of status and properties in the home land to migrate to Malaya. The interaction between the Chulias and the local societies during this period led to an interrelated net of commercial communities that formed trade diaspora.31

            By mid 18th century Kedah became the home of substantial Chulia population and there were a number of their settlement. A large number of Chulias were in the service of the State.32 The English East Indian Company was trying to negotiate a trade contract with the Sultan. But the Sultan was keen in protecting the interest of the Chulia Muslims and the response to the English was not encouraging. The English  factor in Kedah, Monkton, writing on this to the Fort. St. George in 1772, had stated that the Chulia merchants were dominant on the coast, and influential in the court. King Sultan was reluctant to enter in to any contract with the English Company to the detriment of the Chulias”.33

                The king of Kedha was a traders  prince and was sending his ships to Coromndel ports. The Tamil Muslims – the Chulias – commanded such ships and they were also intermediaries on both ends. We find a number of references in the records of the English about the arrival and departure of such ships from PortoNova, Cuddalore and Pondicherry.

            The Chulia ships that brought textiles and a variety of goods to Kedah, returned with elephants, tin, spices and Chinese goods. Elephant were purchased at cheaper rate in Malay and sold for considerable profit. Import of elephant into Coromndel was the specialty of the Chulia Muslims. The ruler of Kedah also had sent elephants in his ships to the Coromndel coast. In view of the vast profit, the Dutch and the English entered into this lucrative trade by theselves. But they leant bitter lessons and incurred heavy loss, since many of the elephants died in transit. They were no match to the knowledge and skill of the Chulias in this regard and left to them.35

                The success of the Tamil Muslim- Chulias trade was organized in such a way to maximize the return on both sides.  Each ship brought a number of small merchants with their goods. They were willing to sell the commodities on credit. Textiles were sold on credit to the rulers who in turn pledged the supply of tine which was a vital commodity in Coromndel trade. Transaction through coinage was rare. The Chulias were experts in barter system. They had sound knowledge about the periodical availability of agricultural   commodities on both sides and demand and supply.36 The Dutch Governor General had said that they cannot compete with the Chulias and they know better where and how to dispose of their goods”.37

                A glimpse in to the life of some individual Chulias in Kedah will be interesting; Jamal the Soudagar Raja, probably a native of  Nagapattinam, by 1786, had risen to became very powerful man in the State, his seal bearing the title “Orang Kaya, Soudagar Raja Negari, Kedah Darulaman”. (The noble  Royal merchant of Kedah the Abode of peace). In the words of Francis Light ‘Jamal, the Chulia, had engrossed the whole administration of the country monopolizing every species of commerce’.  In this capacity he handled the negotiation with Francis Light over the British settlement in the State of Kedah.38 In the later years Light had to adjust with him on the essential basic supplies to Penang.

            Nagore on the Coromndel became an important indigenous port, in the control of the important merchant community of the region, the Marakkayars, by 1778, when the Raja of Thanjavur had granted Nagore and 227 villages around it to the East India Company. The dargah of the celebrated Sufi saint Shahul Hamid at Nagore was a pilgrimage centre to the Muslims and became a resort to the Muslim maritime traders.  Nagore  port was considered as a place for the development of their maritime trade network with South East Asia. The acquisition of Penang in 1786 by the English East India Company came as an added advantage. The control of  both the ports i.e. Nagore and Penang  by the East India Company the Marakkayar traders, the Tamil Muslims – Chulias- met with a new vigour for  their trading activities. Further the South Indian Muslim diaspora in general and the Chulias in particular considered Shahul Hamid,  the Nagore saint as a protector of their ships and persons on the high seas. They also carried the Sufi spiritual cult of the saint to their new destinations and built the replica of the Nagore  dargah  in many places in  Southeast Asia.  The replica of the Nagore shrine is found at Penang, Singapore, Alore Star (Nagore Palli), Kelanton, Johore, Kuala Terengganu and Taiping. It is also interesting to note that the Sufi missionaries used the Nagore shrines as the staging posts during their itineraries for the spread of Islam throughout the archipelago, in which the Chulias merchants  played a major role.39

            The Sultan of Kedah Abdulla Mukkharam Sha ceded the Island of Penang to the English East India company in 1786. Hoisting Union Jack, Captain Francis Light took over the Island and renamed it as Prince of whales Island.40 The long resident Chulias from Kedah were the first to migrate to Penang. After 1786 Penang became famous among the Tamil Muslims, the Chulias, as a land of fortune and a place of future and the English also encouraged such a perception. It was from Penang from this period that the net work of Tamil Muslim diasporas spread in to the rest of the Malay and South east Asia. The Chulias were the only Asian commercial interest group of any significance left in the Bay of Bengal trading area and the Chulia trade was strategically attracted to Penang. The early censuses of Penang show that the Chulias were the third largest community. They were wealthier and lived in houses of considerable size. A number of settlers, sojourners were small peddlers, shops keepers and shipping laborers. In 1780 Light wrote, that ‘Chuliar vessels from Nagore, Nagappattinam, Cuddalore, PortoNovo and Pondicherry became a common sight in Penang waters’. Thus began a new type of economic relationship between the Chulias and European and Penang became the new gateway for the fresh migration of the Chulias, specially directed at the colonial settlement areas in the Strait Settlements. About 2000 migrants of kinds of laborers and petty traders arrived in annually and return after earning some money and succeeded by others.41

            The Chulias in Penang were of three groups. The first comprised the resident merchants, the second who formed the greatest portion were sojourning Chulias who resides in the island for a few months when having disposed of their goods and purchased fresh cargos and return, the third group consisted of coolies and boatmen, also transients who returned  home after a few years.43

            The trade of Penang of increased considerably due to the Coromandel shipping.43 Imports were cloth, tobacco and pearls. The growth of Tamil Muslims – Chulias- prompted the East India company to appoint a captain (The Kapitan Kling) to oversee the Chulias in Penang for adjudicating small disputes among themselves, to prevent criminal activities and notify the arrival and departure of the Chulia vessels.44

            The shipping records of Penang as detailed in the Strait Settlement Factory Records and Strait Settlement Consultations between 1786 to 1793 shows that about 51 vessels had sailed from Coromndel to Southeast Asian ports in the period. The ships were of 400 to 80 tons burthen. A number of Chulia ships were named as Mohamad Bux, Cadar Bux, Huda Bux, Mohidin Bux, Mohideen Kadar Bux etc., ( The Tamil Muslim ship owners had named their ships with suffics  Bux ). Nagore was the preferred port of the Coromandel Marakkayars,  the Chulias, from where 30 ships had taken voyage, followed by PortoNovo with 9 vessels. Tranquebar, Nagapattinam Cuddalore and Pondicherry were the other ports of the Chulias. The ships from Coromndel left in August – September and arrived at Penang between October and December. Many ships proceeded to Malacca, Acheh, Kedah and Pedir. The ships returned between the months of February and April.45

            In the last quarter of the 18th century the export from Coromndel were textiles, salt, tobacco and a variety of other goods. The Nagore Blue cloth was in much demand in Southeast Asian marts.46 Right from 1790 the ships from Coromndel ports carried a large number of Tamil Muslim migrants to Penang. From Penang they spread to other Malay States in search of better opportunities. Many of them went as shopkeepers and coolies. When they returned home, they were succeeded by others.47 The early birds got bigger worms. The prominent traders, financiers and leaders of this day in South east Asia were the descendants of the early immigrants from the ports of the Thanjavur and Arcot.

            There was brisk trade in textiles from Coromndel in Southeast Asia in the first quarter of 19th century.48 Between 1820-1840, gradual decline of exports of Indian textiles to Southeast Asia had been reported due the invasion of the British cotton goods. The Chulia merchants competed with the British  products with a variety of textiles that were in demand in  all sections of the society. Thus it took a long period to get success over the Indian textile. However the British cotton good replaced the Indian textiles by 1860. It was blow to the trade prospects of the Chulias at home and in diaspora.

            When the demand for the staple commodity in export, the textiles met with setback in marketing, the shipping activities of the Chulias towards the Southeast Asian ports lost importance and steadily declining. The shipping records of Penang, from 1808-1847 from the available archival data such as Prince of whales Island Gazette, Penang Register and Miscellenary, Penang Gazette and Strait Settlement Gazette and as well as the records in Tamil Nadu archive show the names of the Chulia owned ships, tonnage capacity, commodities in export and import, destination etc., Further in the middle of the 19th century the Chulia vessels from Coromndel ports were very small from 80-100 tonns.49

            In spite of this economic stagnation, the constant buying and selling of ships by the Marakkayars – Chulias –  on the Coromandel ports will go to show their interest and involvement in the maritime trade. Ships were built in Nagappattinam, Cuddalore and Nagore. The Chulia merchants also purchased ships from South east Asia.50 A Chulia had purchased a ship from Java and named it Mohidin Bux.51

            Absence of opportunities in shipping along the Coromndel Coast from the mid 19th century,a number of  of Marakkayars – Chulias – in the profession  migrated to Southeast Asian countries in search business and jobs. Immigration became easier by that time since most of the Southeast Asian countries became vassal States of Britain politically and economically. The Muslim ship owners on the Coromandel utilized the opportunity in immigration process then in practice. They undertook more trips to Southeast Asian ports.            The cargo ships became passenger ships and the merchandise became secondary. At time such ships were overloaded and subjected to penal action by the authorities. The Muslims passengers were more from Thanjore ports and PortoNovo. Muslim women also emigrated with their men. In 1848 alone about 23 ships had freighted passengers from Nagappattinam, Nagore, Karaikal and PortoNovo. There was good demand for laborers. Malaya withdrew all the restriction on immigration 1897 and a free flow of immigration was allowed. All the main ports on the Coromndel had facilities for handling passenger traffic to Straits. Vast majority of the commercial immigrants became petty entrepreneurs, street side venders, sales men and contractors. In 19th century a substantial number of Tamil Muslim sojourners of different description had settled in the Southeast Asian countries. The emigration of the Coromndel Muslims, Marakkayars, Labbais and  Rawthars continued in 20th    century.52

            Perak was an excellent alternative to the Tamil Muslims in the 16th century when they experienced difficulties in Malacca. The trade of Perak State was under the control of Royalty. The Tamil Muslims were drawn close to the Royal house. Tamil Muslim colonies were established on the port towns. Siddhi Labbai, a native of PortoNovo was the Soudagar Rraja in Perak. The entire production of tin, the important commodity in the export of the State was in the control of Siddhi Labbai. Tamil Muslim merchants bartered the textiles to elephants. The Tamil Muslims were regarded as respectful guests in the court ceremonies. The linguistic knowledge and competency of the Tamil Muslims made them as the intermediaries between the Europeans and natives in Perak. The Tamil Muslims contracted marriage with the local woman and were affectionately called as Thambi (Brother) by the locals as evidenced by the 18th century Malay court chronicle, “Misu Malayu”. Whenever they felt adverse conditions to their trade, they moved to the other favorable places. However the ruler of Perak had felt that the presence of the Tamil Muslims was essential and invited them to his State. He had also approached the English East India Company for help in this regard.  This could be considered as a testimony for importance of the trade diaspora of the Tamil Muslims.53       

            The Tamil Muslim found a hospitable environment in Aceh. The port was least expensive of the country routes from Coromandel. The Sultan extended facilities for the  trade of the Chulias.  Slave trade was lucrative in the second half of 17th century and the Chulia ships were engaged in transporting slaves to Aceh from the Danish port of Tranquebar. Throughout the 18th century trade with Ache continued to provide the Chulia investors with good returns. The Chulia elites were commonly appointed as Soudagar Raja. The Chulias arrived with textiles and returned with pepper and poneys. Southeast Asian   poneys, a type of horse smaller in size  was an alternative to the Arabian horse whose import had been stopped in to Coromandel ports  long ago.  The Sultan of Aceh was heavily depended on the financial support of the Chulias in the coast. Number of small traders arrived in the ships of the Chulias and the Europeans never to return. The Acehnese cronicle Hikayat Pocut  Muhamat, used the word Chulia rather than ‘kling’ to the Tamil Muslim traders. There were many wealthier Chulia merchants on the coast, among them one Nallabubakkar Marakkayar was note worthy. The English were trying to establish a trade post to promote their trade in the coast. The English representative at Aceh, Charles Desvoeux had reported to Fort. St.George,  in 1772, that the Chulia Muslims were very influential with the Sultan. Among them one Chulia merchant Mohamad Kasim, probably a native of Nagappattina, was the prime merchant. The English representative could meet the Sultan only with the help of Mohamed Kasim. The Chulia Muslims opposed the entry of the English in to Aceh trade  but compromised later. The English were permitted to trade in the ports of Aceh.54   Because the  skill and knowledge of the local trade practices the English utilized the Chulias as intermediaries. In that the Aceh records provide the example of one prominent Chulia merchant Po Sellah (Sahih) the  Saudagar Raja, who lived with his family and efficiency to speak in many Languages including Achenis.55

Among the Chulia sojourners and settlers in Aceh,  the Nagoreans were more   and married local women. Their progeny was known as ‘Orang dengan’. Such  people found favour in the State services. In the words of William Marsdan, it was this intermarriage that had resulted in the typical Acehnese physique, generally taller, stouter and dark complexion than other Sumatran.56 It was reported that this ethnic group could be identified separately. The number of Chulia settlement declined in Acheh  in 19th century due to the reducing patronage  affecting the diasporas.

Singapore was identified by the English as a good channel for the direct trade to China and Europe. Stamford Raffles, the lieutenant Governor of Benkulen hoisted the British Flag in Singapore on 31 January 1819, and the port clusters were improved. The Sultan of Jahore alienated all rights in Singapore to the East India Company in 1824. By this time there were a large number of Chulia inhabitants in Singapore.57

            Singapore was the final destination for the ships from the Coromndel ports. When the trade from Singapore base picked up the demand for Indian textiles was in decline. The arrival the Chulia ships from Coromandel ports was less.58 The strategic location of Singapore made it an important redistribution centre of British textiles and other European goods and was exported to other ports of South East Asia, Siam, and Cochin China. By 1865, the European good constituted 97% in Singapore market.58

            Faced with the growing competition of British textiles the Chulia merchants changed   their trading  pattern  and began to ship the British cotton goods both within the regional trade of Southeast Asia and as well as  to the Coromndel ports.59 This shift can be noticed in the export list of goods carried on the vessels commanded by the  Chulias  from Singapore to other Malay ports and as well as to the ports of Coromandal.60 Thus the Chulias accommodated themselves in the South Asian modern  trade system. The Chulia merchants overcame the  deficiency in the trade   of Indian textiles by substituting with the other good available in the market.61

            The political development in India and as well as in South east Asia in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the establishment of Singapore and the collapse of India textile trade adversely affected the trade prospects of the Tamil Muslims and they had to  run for hospitable environment. The commercial success of the in their business acuity, their political and economic influence grounded in their ability to serve as cultural brokers. Their commercial viability was depended on the effective cooperation of the local traders and authorities.  As postulated byPhilip Curtin, that the trade diaspora tended to disappear when the commercial ties reduce the specific needs which helped the service. The Tamil Muslims flourished, in the earlier period, in the diaspora in an environment that required a trusted friend, Kinsman, creditor and  bridge the different commercial practices with language skills. The expansion of European power in Southeast Asia, modern shipping technologies and  trade practices, long distance communication, monetary exchange system and the policies of the government made the cultural broking less critical. Position of power in the terminal and of embarkation no longer exists. However the diaspora continued with residual ventures .62

            The Marakkayar mariners, who once sailed in their own ships, Paimarakkappal, now took the opportunities in shipping profession in the Southeast Asian ports from the early decades of 19th century. Ship chandelling (provisioning ships), stevedoring (provisioning laborers to handle cargoes) were most lucrative business operated by the leading Tamil Muslims within the port clusters. In Singapore the early pioneer in ship chandelling and stevedoring for the European shipping lines was Yussof Sirang of  Nagore, a family name in Malay and Thailand, derived from Marakkayar occupational title ‘Shirang’ meaning, yardmaster or landing contractor which also included labor contract, paymaster and boat wine.63 Many of the early stevedores in Penang and Singapore were from Nagore.

            The British utilized the expertise of the Chulia mariners and they  were appointed as harbor pilots. Yusuff Gany from Nagore, the pilot for P&O lines and the British steam Navigation company was perhaps the famous Marakkayar master mariner in the port of Penang .Some of the maritime Marakkayars, Chulias because dubashes and intermediaries to the European shipping firms. Cadersha & Co and Mohamed Yussof & Co were the prominent in this category in Penang port. The oldest stevedores and ship chandelling agency in Penang was S.V.K Patchee & Co, founded by Varisai Mohamd from Ramanad, started to work with British East India Company, has survived the leaps and bounds to this day.63

            In Penang port there were may ‘Lighter Owners’. The lighter men carried goods to and from ships to the dock by using barges or tonkongs. Some well known lighter owners in the late 19th and 20th century were P.K. Sakkarai Rawthar, S.M.Mohamad Yussof Rawthar, A.K.Seeni Rawthar, Mohamad Sellah Rawthar and so on. Some among them were agents to the British India Steam Navigation Company and the Dutch liners. The advancements from Sakkarai Rawthar and Yussof Rawthar firms about their activities  read: ‘Landing shipping contractors, commission agents, boat owners, suppliers, builders, repairers (ships), ship chandlers, stevedores, Dubashes.65 There were also some minor agencies of the same kind. This will go to show the continuing the traditional maritime diaspora, of the Chulias in South east Asia in the highly completive modern economic system. The persons of this sort were in the good book of the authorities and respected as leaders of the community. Some of the Chulias started bakeries and catering service. In the bottom of the shipping operation, there were the boat men and lighter men, the labor class who constituted the majority among the Tamil Muslim migrants and the later Jawi Pakans. Boat men made their living by ferrying passengers and their luggage. Boatmen will operate like water taxis. They were in the service of the passengers directly of might have hired by stevedoring companies at fixed rates. The living condition boatmen and was near to misery, suffice to record that many of them lived and slept in their boats and lighters.66

            In the late 19th and early 20th century therewere large scale migration of the Tamil Muslims to Southeast Asia. In Thirunelveil and Ramnad districts there were a large number of Muslim families in weaving industry. When  the textile trade met with disaster during the period, the families dependent on the industry were thrown in to poverty. The successive famines added their  owes. People were willing to migrate beyond the seas for a living. There was large scale migration from Kadayanallur and Thenkasi area in Thirunelveli district and from the coasted belt of Ramanad district.

Such migrants were recruited for a hard manual works in the docks in Penang and Singapore. The Marakkayars of Tanjore district and the Rowthars of Ramnad extended kind patronage to these migrant works through their agencies. Thousand of the new migrants slogged in tongkongs, ships, ware houses and godowns along the water front for a pittance. At times they were under the thumb of the ruthless employers of contractors. The Tamil Muslims who moved to Swettanham and Singapore worked as unskilled laborers in the piers. The crowded lodging houses and residential area of the Tamil Muslim Chulia boatmen, sailors and fishermen was called as padahukara street (boatmen street). The women folk who accompanied migrant workers also had to work hard to save their families. In spite of all these known difficulties people flocked in to Southeast Asian land in the hope of better life. The Chulias recovered from the clutches of all nature, slowly disbursed to urban centers such as Penang, Kulalampur, Ipoh, Taiping, Alor Star, Malacca, Johore and Singapore,  in the later years, and settled. However the stories of these poor Tamil Muslims the Chulias seldom included in the labor history of Southeast Asia.67 Some historians have ignored or left passing inadequate reference about the Tamil Muslim- Chulia diaspora, in their writings, on Southeast Asia.

            During the Second World War there was dislocation in economic activities. After the war there was political unrest and conflictual situation on the identity question in the Malay world including that of the Chulias. The Chulias were subjected to changes in their occupational patterns. Independent sundry traders pushed back as vendors and food sellers, (the nasi kanders). Works on the harbor front slipped away from the reach of the common Chulias. Fortunately the laboring occupation was not in decline which became a resort to a large number of Chulias. Rapid economic growth and modernization in the first and second quarter of 20th century affected the Chulia enterprises also  due to stiff competition from other settlers like the  Chinese. Only a few could survive, such as Sharfudeen ship enterprise in Singapore; Barakath Ali Food products exporters; Naina Mohamad & sons and M.S.Aley & Co.  in pharmaceutical and chemical agency in  Kulalampur, K.M.Oli Mohamad, and Habib in Jewellery in Singapore and Penang respectively to mention a few, though it runs to a long list.68 Thus the Chulia community showed achievements and resilience in some small enterprises and decline in many other majors.

The prospects of the trade of the Tamil Muslims were linked to the political condition of the host countries. There was always threat from the enemy States to a State and the politics in many of the South East Asian States was in mess during 18th century. The Madras based private English merchants offered arms help to the Sultans in the case of attack by enemy nations. They kept armed men on the shore of these countries for this purpose. For example an English private merchant Jourdan in 1768 arranged military help to the Sultan of Aceh. He shipped men from Nagore for this purpose. He was granted many trade concessions. He also enjoyed similar concessions in Kedah for affording arms to the Sultan. Thus the Sultans encouraged the English private traders who helped their defense. The Tamil Muslims never attempted in such ventures. This was also reason for the diminishing  prospects of  their maritime trade. However, the trading diaspora of the Tami Muslims remained in the annals of the trading diaspora of the world as the best example. Though the trade diaspora faded away,the enterprising elites among them emerged stronger in many fields, business and professions, in the Southeast Asian States and attained  good social standing and there are many successful stories. But there are a number of people in the lower strata and their social condition is not healthy.69

             After the Second World War, there was again brisk immigration thanks  to the  modern shipping technology. No more native sails from the Coromndel coast. S.S. Rajula was the only ship running monthly between Malay and Madras port. It also  took  passengers at Nagapattinam. Touching Penang the ship sailed to Klang and Singapore. By the  new regulations in 1950s though the government permitted about 3000 persons to  migrate, the ship had to  disembark in Penang port and the onward passengers to Klang and Singapore had to travel by train after wait and sufferings. From 1951 S.S. Jalagopal, the Indian owned ship  was also in service till 1955 along with S,S,Rajula .  S.S.Jalagopal was replaced with another vessel S.S.State of Madras, which   was in service till 1974. The service of SS Rajula continued up to 1973 and another ship M.V.Chidambaram was introduced   between Penang and Madras route until it was damaged by fire  in 1985. After which shipping service was scrapped all together to the Malay world from Coromndel. Utilizing the shipping service a large number of Chulias immigrated to Southeast Asia during the period and the episodes have abundance of interesting stories. After 1960 the Penang port lost its importance due reduced shipping activities, labor unrest, the water way workers had to shift to other small business and many returned home. However the shipping activity shifted to Klang and Singapore where The Tamil Muslim workers also got some opportunities. After 1985, Air Service was the course open.70

            The Tamil Muslims, the Chulias at present are the minority Muslims community in Malaysia and Singapore. ‘Their identity in the diaspora in the Malay world is conditioned by three facts: firstly, they are drawn from a diverse milieu in the land of their origin in Tamil Nadu and continued to maintain group identities deriving from their regional land scape; secondly, although they share a common religion they with indigenous Malay Muslims, in that their distinctive linguistic and cultural paraphernalia had added a uniqueness; thirdly, as a independent migrants they share very less in common with their linguistic compatriots, the Tamil Hindus, whose diaspora was of different nature”.71

            All the free migrant Chulias in to Southeast Asia whether rich or poor or labor class shared a common feature in  their migration pattern in the middle of 20th century. They  had tried to develop a  small network that become forerunner of the chain migrants based on family centered or village or region they come from. The new migrants will be taken care by the earlier ones and the occupations also were clan centered. They had formed clan or regional based social organization among themselves to cater the social and religious needs which continue to be so to the present.72

            The Tamil Muslims, the Chulia sojourners and Settlers for centuries had prospered themselves besides their contribution in  nation building in their terminal points embarkation in South east Asian States. At the end of the 19th century many of the Cholias rose to positions in the cosmopolitan society of the region. Colonial Imperial patronage could be understood from the various concessions and patronage offered starting from the Penang Kapitan Kling Cadar Mohideen Marican, the founder of the Kapitan Kling or Chulia mosque, to the   host of others and the community as a whole. In 20th century, the European maritime dominance had drastically marginalized the Chulias, the master of commerce and captains of their own shipping lines. The Penang diaspora which converged there in the last quarter of the 19th century, now dispersed to various parts of Southeast Asia. Educated Javi Peranakans easily found employment in Singapore and Malaysia.

            Though the Tamil Muslims, the Chulias were separated from their home land across the seas they were keen in the happenings in Indian politics and economy. They had questioned and raised their voice against the British Imperialism whenever the rights and freedom of the people were curtailed and had extended their support to the Indian freedom struggle and the Indian National Army. By their liberal charity and endowments they have been supporting the social causes of the people   and the development of education in their home land. The Tamil Muslims, Chulias have contributed their due share in the multifarious developments in their diasporas, such as culture, Malay Literature, modern Malay, Tamil Language, Tamil journalism etc., In the modern world of globalization they had reinvigorated their enterprising in all the fields from business to technologies and their remittance to Indian centered family and kin, is a factor in helping  Indian economy. In the plural society of the Malay world whether as  Malays, Jawi Peranakkan or Chulias, the unique Tamil identity is always in their blood. The diaspora continues……..

Much has to be written on the subject and awaits the attention of the  historians   and anthropologists.


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  28. Clifford Geetz, Islam observed,(Chicago, 1989) pp.73-74.
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  36. Noordin Hussain, Trade and Society in the straits of Malacca, English Penang 1780-1800, (Copenhegen 2007), pp.79-80.
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  42. George Leith, A short Account of the settlement, Produce and commerce of Prince of Wales Island in the Straits of Malacca, (London, 1804), pp.20-27.
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  44. National Archives of India; Home Public Consultations, January 1796.
  45. Sundara Srinivasa Rao, op.cit., pp.88-89.
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  51. TNA. Public Consultations, October 8, 1828, Volume 565, pp.3667-68.
  52. TNA. Public Consultations, Volume 831, 28 November 1848, pp.7-9; Volume, 852, 12 December 1848; Volume 898, 7 December 1852, pp.8-19; Board of Revenue consultations, 20 January 1875, pp.305-307 and 10 March p.1673; J.Raja Mohamad, Maritime History, op.cit.,pp.177-183.
  53. Raja Chulan, Misu Malaya (Kulalampur 1968); Barbara Watson Andaya, Perak: A Study a eighteenth century Malay State (Kulalampur 1976), p.402
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  61. Sundara Sreenivasa op.cit pp.174-5.
  62. J.Raja Mohamad, Tamil Muslims-Maritime History and Diaspora Sectional Presidential address in Historiograply and Maritime History of South Indian History Congress, 37th Session march 2017.
  63. Ainti Akbari – 1, pp.190-191, Koosalma Nasution op.cit.pp.431-32; J.Raja Mohamad, Maritime History, op.cit.p.87
  64. Koo Salma Nasution, op.cit p.431-2.
  65. ibid pp.435-6
  66. ibid pp-367.
  67. ibid.436-438; Kadayanallur Muslim Varalaru, (ed) S.A.Mohamad Ibrahim, Kadayanallur, 2009.
  68. Ravi A.Sankar, Tamil Muslims in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and Singapore – Historical identity and Change in the twentieth century, (Kulalampur 2001), pp.13-14
  69. ibid.pp.16-17, 28.
  70. J.Raja Mohamad, Tamil Muslim, (2017), op.cit.
  71. J.Raja Mohamad, S.S.Rajula,  The History of 20th Century Ship, in, Naavai, Tamil Universty, (Tanjore, 2010), pp.197- 202; Koo Salma Natasion, op.cit.,pp.478-79
  72.  Ravi A.Shankar, op.cit.p.27
  73. ibid. p.40.

(Paper presented in the Sojourners to Settlers- Tamils in Southeast Asia, organized by the Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore, 6,7 December, 2019. – jrajamohamad@yahoo.com)

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